Ryanair’s O’Leary Calls for Single-Pilot Commercial Flights

 - September 10, 2010, 7:26 AM
Ryanair’s controversial chief executive Michael O’Leary wants to eliminate copilots in his Boeing 737 jets. He has also indicated that he will start negotiating to buy around 300 new aircraft but whether Airbus re-enters the competition for the fleet renewal remains a matter of speculation. (Photo: Matt Banks)

Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary is pushing for single-pilot commercial aircraft operations. In a September 8 interview with the Financial Times, O’Leary argued that copilots are essentially redundant in modern airliners because “the computer does most of the flying.” The Ireland-based low-cost carrier subsequently confirmed that it initiated a dialogue with aviation authorities regarding the possibility of legalizing single-pilot operations, but in a statement made clear that the proposal remains at an early stage. “No formal approach has been made, but we are starting the debate so that we can look to reduce costs without compromising safety,” Ryanair said in the statement. “Given the sophistication of our aircraft we believe that one pilot flying can operate safely on short routes and reduce fares for all passengers.”

O’Leary argued that since regulations allow trains to operate with just one driver, the practice ought to be safe for short-haul flights. “In 25 years with over about 10 million flights, we’ve had one pilot who suffered a heart attack in flight and he landed the plane,” he told the Financial Times, adding that flight attendants could cover for copilots, who he maintained are essentially required only to “make sure the first fella doesn’t fall asleep and knock over one of the computer controls.”

O’Leary has a track record of making what some would regard as outlandish proposals for the future of air transport, including floating a plan to charge passengers to use aircraft toilets. But he is not alone in his thoughts on single-pilot operations. In July, avionics group Thales revealed that it is working on a so-called “cockpit 3.0” concept that would enable single-pilot operations by enabling a safe-flight backup in case the pilot becomes incapacitated in some way.

The Ryanair boss also has indicated that he might revive plans for a fleet renewal by buying up to 300 new aircraft. Late last year, the airline walked away from a prospective $15 billion deal for 200 Boeing aircraft. If O’Leary does get back into the airliner market, it will be interesting to see whether Airbus opts to join the contest for his business. In February 2009, the European airframer declined to bid for Ryanair’s new fleet requirement on the grounds that it was unwilling to expend time and money trying to match O’Leary’s expectations for deep discounts.